Hazel McHaffie

Battle of the Somme

HIV/AIDS in fiction – but not mine!

I’m one of those irritating people who can’t function in a clutter, and that’s nowhere more apparent than in my writing life. I need to clear up any unresolved issues and outstanding tasks before I can psyche myself into the creative zone.

This week I’ve been flitting from an intriguing system for finding new readers (yawn, yawn), to consolidating material for the children’s Christmas story (great fun!), preparing for forthcoming author appearances (mmm, lovely communication with real live people), and delving into the ethical dimensions behind ongoing medical questions (round and round and round, we go). Oh, and a little bit of digging into the past in our family and communicating with archivists – related to Remembrance Day and my Uncle Harold who died on the Somme a hundred years ago this year. Thiepval memorialAll in all a very raggy kind of week. And definitely not conducive to serious stints of writing.

So, I’m busy tidying up loose ends to put me in a calmer place. Not exactly headline news, not remotely interesting to anyone else, indeed, so I’ll just share one activity with you that closed – nay, more like permanently deleted – one of the many open files in my brain.

In my stack of ideas for possible future novels I have a wallet labelled ‘HIV/AIDS’, so when I saw a review of Tell the Wolves I’m Home I just had to buy a copy. I read it over a year ago but somehow never got round to writing about it here. This seems like a good moment to rectify that omission.Tell the Wolves I'm Home

It’s a debut novel by Carol Rifka Brunt, an American writer now living in Devon, who was selected for the New Writing Partnership’s New Writing Ventures award, and funded by the Arts Council to write it. Lucky woman, huh?

Essentially, it’s a well written tale of love and compassion, secrets and prejudice, forbidden relationships and the legacies left by bittersweet memories.

The narrator is a fourteen year old girl, June Elbus, the younger sister of the slimmer and more beautiful Greta. June is a curious mixture as she hovers on the brink of adulthood: still fantasising about the Middle Ages and wolves, playing like a child in the woods, one minute; showing a maturity beyond her years as she faces death and loss, tortured by her own inappropriate longings, the next.

The girls’ Uncle Finn is a famous artist and he’s painting a picture of the sisters, hoping to complete it before he dies of AIDS. June is obsessed by Finn Weiss, who is also her godfather – in love with him in fact – and his death devastates her. But Finn has made provision for her grief in the shape of his hidden lover, Toby, who materialises unexpectedly at the funeral and becomes very much part of her secret world. Gradually June gets to see the impact Toby had on the uncle she thought she knew.

The Elbus family are riven with tensions arising from Finn’s fame, his illness, Mom’s reaction to it, Toby’s part in it, Greta’s insecurity, the parents’ ambitions, sibling rivalries. Jealousies, conflicts, and divided loyalties drive them to re-examine their lives, their strengths and weaknesses. Greta is not the confident, popular older sister June thought she was. Finn is not the man June thinks he is. The painting is not revered as a masterpiece should be.

In a former life I actually carried out empirical research in the early days of HIV/AIDS, and Brunt’s portrayal of the family’s reaction to the illness rings true for the time. It’s sensitively and sympathetically wrought. So too are the dynamics of the Elbus family. I liked the way the author gradually unravelled the characters and showed us their true selves – cleverly done through the eyes of an adolescent first person narrator. It’s a multi-layered book, successfully weaving and merging many threads until the tale is told. A worthy winner of a prestigious award.

But the time for writing a novel on the subject myself is passed; all my books on the subject can be consigned to a good cause. That potential novel can be crossed off my list. Result? Space on my shelves and in my brain! Wahey!!

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At the Going Down of the Sun

Thiepval memorialMy uncle Harold lies somewhere in France, killed in the battle of the Somme. Well, actually ‘missing presumed dead’. His name is carved at the top of a list on the Thiepval memorial on the site.

He was 21 years of age. Much the same age as the main characters in At the Going Down of the Sun by Elizabeth Darrell which I’ve just finished reading. And in a way he has come alive for me through this epic tale of World War I.

At the Going Down of the SunIt’s not a book for the faint-hearted – either in size (a doorstopper at 591 densely typed pages) or in content. But look past the horrible cover and occasional grammatical lapses and it’s well worth the effort.

The Sheridan boys were born into wealth and property, but they grow up deprived of the love of parents. Roland is the steady responsible eldest, surrogate father to his brothers, looking forward to the life of a respected surgeon, enjoying his beloved horses and the family estate. Rex is the handsome fun-loving middle one, besotted with aeroplanes, who soon becomes a hero, an ace pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. Christopher is both beautiful and academically brilliant, but after his very first five minute fumble in the dark, he is forced into a teenage marriage to preserve the honour of the local doctor’s daughter, Marion, who seduced him.

But fate has very different plans in store for them when first their father commits suicide in Madeira, and then Britain goes to war. All three suffer unspeakable horrors. Their minds as well as their bodies are ravaged.

Nineteen year old Chris enlists to escape the nightmare of his marriage. But his brilliant mind and deficient eyesight are wholly unsuited to life as a soldier where ‘danger had become almost a friend; bullets whistled past their nonchalance as an accepted part of each day.’  The sight of his friend minus half a head, and the homosexual overtures of a close colleague, coupled with the terror of the Gallipoli landing, drive him to the very edge of insanity.

As he walks towards a ‘certain-death’ assignment he is ‘filled with anguish of knowing a man’s mind and senses counted for nothing. It was his body that was valued – by girls who longed for physical conquest, by men whose desires were perverted, by war leaders who wanted a figurehead for doomed men. For nineteen years he had revelled in the philosophies of wisdom, the refinements of culture, the language of beauty, and the infinite complexity of profundity. Yet, in the end, it seemed all he was was a bag of hay.’

Chris’ psychiatric illness forces his elder brother Roland to enlist in spite of his conscience. His experience is of medicine in the trenches, boys rotting and losing their minds before his very eyes. There’s the occasional heroic deed: performing a tracheostomy using a bayonet and a gas whistle. But mostly it’s pure drudgery: foot-rot, dysentery, infected rat-bites, shell-shock, trench fever, even measles, and all this trapped in claustrophobic earth dugouts just a few feet wide, that fill up with waist high slimy water when ‘the non-stop drenching cold rain of approaching winter’ sets in. He is utterly exhausted, filthy, infested with body lice, demoralised himself, but the work is relentless, every day a living nightmare.

The noise was a non-stop pressure on ear-drums and senses – the whine and crump of heavy shells, the whistle of mortar-mines, the steady crack of rifle-fire, the clangour of the gas-gong, the tortured screams of men. Thick smoke everywhere, flying earth and other indescribable fragments, the silent choking killer that penetrated men’s lungs and left them to die slowly and agonisingly, The excited commands in high boyish voices as subalterns prepared to repulse a bayonet attack; the gruffer roar of experienced N.C.O’s (sic) as they repeated the commands. The oaths, the profanities, the careless bravado, the stifled fear, the cries for help, the sobbing over a slaughtered friend: all these were part of the real battle, Roland discovered.

The middle son is daredevil Rex who quickly notches up an outstanding tally of deaths (human and aeroplane). He’s a legend and a hero to most of his colleagues and compatriots. He’s feted by the public at home. He gets the girl everyone desires. But underneath the bravado he is a tortured soul. When he’s challenged and condemned by a group of crusading women, he realises they ‘had no notion of the sadness and anxiety he had suffered over his poor young brother, or the anguish of seeing friends sizzling into piles of blackened flesh. … Did they have nightmares and wake up in a sweat? Did they have to live a pretence and hide the terrible truth?

This book takes us closer to that truth. We feel the enormity of what happened in those grim years, 1914-1918, when my uncle lost his life. The extreme youth of those poorly trained combatants. The rudimentary machines and technology. The effect of repeated loss. The fate of conscientious objectors.

I was forcibly reminded of my visits to the war graves in France. Standing silent before those tombstones. The ones that simply state: ‘A soldier – known unto God’. Shocked and saddened. Moved to tears.

During his time at the front Roland Sheridan writes a series of letters graphically describing his experiences. They – and this whole book – are ‘really a cry to the next generation never to let this happen again.’ It’s a gripping and emotional read and I highly recommend it.



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